Miliband(s) and the left. Can Labour learn its history?

The party must avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s.

Can the left, or more specifically Labour, learn from its history? In an important article in the Times (£), David Miliband sets out his stall as a leading thinker on the crisis of the contemporary left in Europe. More precisely, he discusses the failure of the European parties of the governing left to seize the moment.

He claims that the parties of the European left have never been so excluded from government. That is a little unfair on Spain, Portugal, Greece and now Ireland. And David's father lived through the 1950s, when Britain, Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries and Ireland were all solidly under centre-right rule, as was France, where the main-left opposition was provided by the Communist Party, which did protest not power.

Might it be more true that voters do not vote left at times of economic crisis and downturn? Instead, these periods see a rise of populist, nationalist identity politics, often allied to economic and social protectionism and isolationism. The left came into power in Germany in 1970 and France in 1981 at the end of longish periods of growth. Labour did badly in the 1980s and lost a fourth consecutive election in 1992 at a time of high unemployment, house repossessions and mass business closures.

By 1997, the economy was stabilised, growth was steady, and unemployment was going down. Rather than the worse, the better for the left, it may be more accurate to say that countries vote left when voters feel more confident about their future.

If greens and anti-social-democratic parties of the left are counted in with mainstream Party of European Socialist parties, then the accumulated left vote does not look so bleak even today. There is a fair chance that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could win the French presidency next year, such is the disillusion with Nicolas Sarkozy, who now trails behind the extremist and racist Marine Le Pen, who has succeeded her father as leader of France's National Front. There are six major regional elections in Germany this year following the Hamburg mini Land vote, which the Social Democrats comfortably won over Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Judgements can be made later in the year, but the chances of the SPD returning to run Germany in coalition cannot be dismissed.

The biggest problem for classic social democracy or Labourism is the disappearance of a nationally rooted, industrial working class, both skilled and blue-collar manual. There is a proletariat, but it is often immigrant, sometimes without papers, disconnected from a common sense of national identity or the traditional religious and communal history of the left. If Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx, what now is Labour's connection to Muslim Britain?

Trade unions in Europe no longer confront or control capitalism, as the private-sector economy is largely union-free. Instead unions are concentrated in the public sector, where the source of pay, pensions and perks comes from workers paying taxes. Has the left got a politics for the public sector beyond denouncing cuts? French unions have been mobilising public-sector workers continuously in a series of strikes and protests for 20 years. The unions may fill the streets, but voting urns are filled for the right as French voters keep choosing a right-wing president and even in 2002 preferred Jean-Marie Le Pen to the Socialist Lionel Jospin.

The European country where the left has held cabinet seats continuously since 1958 is Switzerland. But Switzerland is also home to Europe biggest populist identity party, the SVP (Swiss People's Party), which campaigns against the EU, against mosques, against Muslims and for harsh criminal justice. So does the left win and hold government power simultaneously with losing its hold over its traditional 20th-century base – the national, monocultural working class?

David Miliband has sketched out a series of brilliant insights, and his talk tonight at the LSE is an important event as Labour starts the long process of thinking about where it went wrong and what it needs to do to regain power. In South Yorkshire on 19 March, Britain's top Labour historians will gather with the public to discuss part of the question Miliband addresses. At a conference in Rotherham called "31-51-81: Why Labour Stayed in Opposition", Professor Andrew Gamble and other historians and writers on Labour will try to explain Labour's three lost decades – the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s. (Details and application form here.)

Gerald Kaufman, who was in the Oxford Labour Club with Rupert Murdoch and stood for parliament in 1955 and 1959, will join with David Owen, founder 30 years ago of the Social Democratic Party as witnesses to those bleak lost decades for Labour. What did Labour do or say that made voters maintain the right in power? Are there lessons today from how Labour stayed rooted in opposition for such long spells in the 20th century?

En route between London and his South Shields constituency, David Miliband is welcome to drop off in Rotherham on Saturday week. So are any NS readers who would like to take part. Come to think of it, Doncaster is only 20 minutes from Rotherham. Maybe David's brother should disguise himself, sit at the back, and see if the story of Labour in the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s can provide clues as to how he can set about becoming prime minister sooner rather than later.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

For more information go to 31-51-81.co.uk or send cheque for £10 to: South Yorkshire Political Conference, 4 Hall Grove, Rotherham S60 2BS.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change